London is one of the greatest cities in the world because it is as close as you can get to the world in one city.
More than 100 languages are spoken in London. 40 per cent of Londoners are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background, compared to 14 per cent across England & Wales. Over a third of people in the capital were born overseas, and the 10 most reported countries of birth for non-UK born Londoners span four continents.
The high level of migration to London is both evidence of, and further contributes to, its greatness. But even those of us who are positive about diversity need to accept that it brings challenges. The main one being how to ensure that people who don’t have the same ethnic, religious or cultural background can identify with and feel part of the city we all share. We all know the many risks associated with allowing minority groups to become disconnected and alienated from wider society.
So how do you ensure that the people from all of the myriad communities that make up our great city can contribute to a feel part of London’s future? One way is to look to the past: to tell a plausible and compelling story about why London is the way it is and how we all got here. The main problem with this approach is that it involves talking about empire, and there are few topics we are more eager to avoid.
London looks and feels the way it does because it was once at the centre of one of the largest imperial endeavours the world has ever seen. 7 out of 10 of the most reported countries of birth of non-UK born Londoners are former British colonies (8 if you include the US). London is diverse in large part because Great Britain used to dominate by force. The violence, oppression and inhumanity necessary to maintain this domination is something we have wilfully forgotten.
Perhaps because of this collective amnesia, 41 per cent of Londoners actually think colonialism was a good thing (compared to 23 per cent who think it was bad), and 42 per cent think it is something of which we should be proud (compared to 24 per cent who think we should regret it). Almost half (45 per cent) of the people in London think that former colonies are better off for having been colonised, while 19 per cent think they are worse off. When it comes to our colonial past, we are very deeply confused.
Much recent attention has focussed on the #RhodesMustFall campaign, which argues for the statue of the 19th century colonialist Cecil Rhodes to be removed from outside Oriel College, Oxford. But similar campaigns could be launched against London statues which depict individuals with links to the slave trade, for example. In fact, many of London monuments celebrate the exploits of men (it is almost always men) who administered, aided and argued for the domination of other human beings around the world.
London is now full of the decedents of those Britain previously dominated by force. The legacy of empire is a big part of the reason many immigrants are here.